Officials call for $1 million dispatch upgrade
Sep 9, 2013 at 9:30 AM
If they reversed roles, here’s what an emergency call might sound like between a local taxpayer and an area 911 dispatcher:
Local taxpayer: “911, what’s your emergency?”
Dispatcher: “We need a lot of money to help keep you safe. More money can reduce response times, pinpoint where you are and inform police officers and firefighters of nearby hazards.”
Local taxpayer: “OK, help is on the way.”
While purely illustrative, this little dialogue sums up the reason Erie County commissioners approved a six-year, $1.15 million purchase order for updated 911 equipment.
Set to debut in 2014, the project includes technology upgrades, maintenance and support. Most of the funding derives from a tax or surcharge tacked onto bills for cellular or landline phone services, said Tim Jonovich, Erie County’s emergency management director.
The remaining costs will likely be covered by local police and fire departments — such as Sandusky, Perkins Township and Huron — contracting with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office to provide emergency dispatching services. Among the upgrades or enhancements scheduled for 2014 and beyond:
• Creating a shared records management system any local law enforcer or firefighter can access.
• Streamlining information shared among police officers and firefighters.
• Improving tracking abilities when pinpointing a 911 caller’s location.
• Better identifying hazards or other troubles, based on the 911 caller’s location.
• Tracking the whereabouts of all emergency vehicles, which would reduce response times.
• Accepting text messages, photos and videos from cell phones when someone wants to send such items to dispatchers or emergency personnel.
Local data shows 911 dispatchers in Erie County fielded more than 39,000 calls placed from cell phones and landlines in 2012.
“Obviously, the community relies on this system for help,” Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said. “While utilizing the funds properly, we want to keep the system as current as possible so we can continue to communicate with the public in the quickest and most efficient way possible to keep them safe.”
Erie County’s 911 system needs an upgrade now because it will become obsolete in 2015, as developers plan to halt production.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the six new features on the horizon:
Creating a shared records management system any local law enforcer or firefighter can access.
“We are not all on the same software program,” Sigsworth said. “Perkins is on one. Sandusky is on another. Fire departments aren’t even on one. But we’re going to get everyone on the same system.”
Sigsworth offered the following scenario to explain how this system could benefit local law enforcers. “If I can run John Smith, for instance, on a sheriff’s system, I can see on one search that Sandusky dealt with him twice last week, Perkins dealt with him once a month ago and Huron dealt with him six months ago,” he said. “Today that’s not possible, as I would have to look at each ... department’s individual records for this information.”
A new shared records system would also automatically produce jail information, such as mug shots and past charges, anytime an officer searches someone’s name.
Streamlining information shared among police officers and firefighters.
“If a fire department goes to an ambulance call, they can know that police went there twice in the last week because people were fighting or being violent,” Sigsworth said. “That is something good for firefighters to know about, that there are hazards present.”
Improving tracking abilities when pinpointing a 911 caller’s location.
In spring 2011, after years of delays and snafus, the county’s wireless 911 program finally launched. Today, anyone with a cell phone can dial 911 and, in most cases, stand a good chance of having their precise location pop up on a dispatcher’s digital mapping program inside the sheriff’s office.
This technology helps dispatchers quickly direct emergency responders to a 911 caller’s nearly precise location.
Whether on land or water, some people — including many tourists visiting area attractions — simply cannot provide their exact location to dispatchers, which inevitably prolongs emergency response times.
The system only works about 80 percent of the time, for a variety of reasons. Some calls, for instance, are inadvertently sent to cell towers located outside Erie County. When a call is made from a location on the county’s fringe — say, in Milan — it might go through a cell tower in Huron County.
In other instances, the calls may roam to and from different networks, while in other scenarios, callers turn off — or they never even turn on — their cell phone’s GPS settings.
The most basic problem, meanwhile, seems to arise when callers dial in from areas that have poor service levels. Emergency officials said Kelleys Island and Vermilion Township are the most problematic areas for wireless 911.
“When we do get (an updated) system, it will route that call to where the call is and not where the cell tower is located,” Jonovich said. “Currently, the calls are routed off from where the cell towers are.”
Said Sigsworth: “You will get more target-specific routing, where you will get the exact location of where the individual is, rather than where the cell tower is from which the call is coming from.”
Better identifying hazards or other troubles, based on the 911 caller’s location.
An upgraded system would also identify key information helpful to police and firefighters as they respond to emergency situations.
Firefighters, for instance, might have to respond to a burning building where there are only two emergency exits. Thatbuilding might be located by a biohazard, and the facility might also have three fire hydrants located within a 100-foot radius. An enhanced mapping system would immediately instruct dispatchers to relay this information to first responders.
This cannot be done with the existing system. This new technology would also be available from inside emergency vehicles, such as police cruisers, ambulances and fire trucks.
Tracking the whereabouts of all emergency vehicles, which would reduce response times.
“If Sandusky is tied up, and Sandusky needs a backup ambulance, the new mapping will allow dispatchers or supervisors to see what other agency vehicles are available,” Sigsworth said. “On Cleveland Road, they might want to call an empty Huron or Perkins ambulance that can get there quicker.”
Accepting text messages, photos and videos from cell phones when someone wants to send such items to dispatchers or emergency personnel.
“The system today does not have the capabilities to accept text messages or videos,” Sigsworth said. “But it’s not going to be long where people can send messages or videos right from their cell phones. People can send us pictures of traffic crashes or video of a fight. Then, our system would capture the information and save it in the system.”